July 28, 2010 by wcobserver
Mayor Throgmorton may be right. All the brouhaha she stirred up when she eliminated the Public Forum from the Council Meeting got us thinking. Maybe she’s on to something here. After all, a citizen only has a couple of minutes to say something in the public forum. There is usually no comment from council members; no dialogue; no questions and answers. The room is terrible for meetings; there are no good seats and the PA system isn’t adequate, if it even works. The public forum comment goes in the public record, but who reads the minutes? Maybe there is a better way for citizens to participate in the democratic process. After all, as people are quick to point out – West Fork is a small town.
Let’s have town meetings! (This idea was actually inspired by a conversation with an unnamed council member). The Town Meeting is unique to small towns and has been used as a method of participatory democracy in America since the 1600s.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, participatory democracy it is a process that originated as an ancient Greek ideal of government by the people. It combines elements from both “direct democracy,” where all citizens are involved in all important decisions that take place in face-to-face meetings of the whole group and “representative democracy” where citizens rely on elected representatives to govern. The rules for how all this works varies by location and group. In general the notions of “public sphere” and “civil society” come into play; people looking out for the good of the community as a whole, yet respecting and taking interest in each other’s opinions. Some big thinkers suggest if you’re interested in less government interference at the local level, this is where to begin.
A Town Meeting is a form of participatory democracy which may or may not have any legislative power depending on what the people want. One thing is for sure – it creates opportunities for all members of a town to make meaningful contributions to decision-making and allows for a wider range of people to have such opportunities.
The new and creative ideas that could flow from town meetings are obvious. A group of serious minded, engaged individuals is capable of coming up with any number of creative solutions to collective problems. Then there’s the down side. Democracy is always a messy process. There are the single issue wing nuts that seem to troll public meetings seeking a captive audience. There have to be rules for public meetings…and enforcers.
Technology has a lot to do with the renewed interest in both participatory democracy and town meetings. A small community with networks of social media (face book) users and City Web Site watchers allows for a pretty fast accumulation of knowledge and productive dialogue. (Never mind for a moment that West Fork doesn’t have a Facebook page or web site).
So how ‘bout it, Your Honor? Let’s get radical and dump the public forum in favor of town meetings in the community center.